Why F1 would regret giving Michael Andretti the cold shoulder


Michael Andretti is pressing on with plans to launch an 11th F1 team despite an icy reception in parts of the paddock. He's more than worthy of a place on the grid, writes Damien Smith

Michael Andretti pitwall portrait

Does Andretti and his racing empire have anything to prove to F1?

Penske Entertainment

Were you disappointed by Toto Wolff’s cool and rather high-handed response to the news Michael Andretti is pitching for a place on the Formula 1 grid on his own terms, after being knocked back late last year by the owners of Alfa Romeo-badged Sauber? When asked what he thought about the new bid, the Mercedes-AMG team principal acknowledged “Andretti is a name, that’s for sure” before adding that any new entry has to be “accretive – that means to add value”. Cheers for the explanation, Toto… His message, it seemed, was a new entry is not just about a team having the means to lodge the eye-watering $200 million entry fee, but what it “can do for the other teams, for F1 and the FIA”. In other words, what would so-called Andretti Global contribute to the rarefied, elite world of F1?

As a first response, it nettled. First off, you’d expect most fans to perceive the idea of a fresh US grand prix team fronted by America’s first family of racing, propelling into F1 an intriguing talent such as Colton Herta, as generally great news. Proud father Mario Andretti is certainly excited, so much so he couldn’t contain himself and convinced Michael he should be the one to break the story via social media. To then puncture Mario’s balloon with a po-faced ‘what’s in it for us?’ straight off the bat seemed a bit… well, mean-spirited.

Also, by jumping to the point that Andretti must add value kind of insinuates that’s in doubt, as if Michael and his backers aren’t worthy. How very F1.

At its heart F1 is still the ‘Piranha Club’. Michael is ready to dive headlong back in.

Andretti’s, um, ‘accretion’ really shouldn’t be a bother. Outside of the F1 bubble, he has earned increasing respect in the past two decades since he switched from decorated IndyCar driver to increasingly accomplished team chief. He’s built a fine empire with remarkable reach – although for some if it’s not F1 it doesn’t count, does it…?

Just consider the roster of Andretti Autosport’s racing interests right now: on the home front, a high-quality four-car IndyCar team, plus Indy Lights and IMSA LMP3 programmes; on the international scene and specifically in pioneering arenas, there’s a UK-based Formula E campaign that is thriving and competitive despite BMW withdrawing its factory interest, plus a partnership with United Autosport in Extreme E. Then there’s also the Walkinshaw Andretti United Racing amalgam that’s doing fine things in Australian Supercars. Michael is up there as an equal force within US racing’s blessed ‘holy trinity’ that’s completed by Roger Penske and Chip Ganassi. He’s more than worthy of F1. Whether he should press the big green button if he gets the nod – well, that’s another question.

Walkinshaw Andretti Australian Supercar

Getty Images

Jake Dennis in Avalanche Andretti Formula E car

Formula E

New F1 teams don’t spring up too often these days, and the way F1 is structured now it doesn’t suit the current cartel of 10 to divide the cake with an 11th member – even though the $200m entry fee represents a form of insurance to protect those on the grid from a dilution of revenues. Michael Andretti reacted in a way that suggested he was a little hurt at Wolff’s response, but he should hardly be surprised. No matter what name a new team is trading under and where it comes from, a warm welcome is far from guaranteed – at least from inside the paddock.

So in that context, why should he want to stick his head back in the lion’s den? As a businessman, surely he doesn’t need to prove himself in grand prix racing, given the success of his diverse global interests. And while for the first time since Bernie Ecclestone opened up TV revenues in the 1980s, running an F1 team looks set to become a more lucrative pursuit and less of a quick means of losing a large fortune, it seems unlikely this pure-bred racer would be in it purely for the money. No, it’s far more believable that as a sportsman whose only previous direct involvement with F1 ended badly – and who also just happens to be the son of one of the all-time greats – he has a nagging itch that just needs to be scratched. It might well be that simple.

There are plenty who would tell him to avoid the temptation – leave it alone, Michael! – but he must understand what he’s letting himself in for, especially given his friendship with McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown. It’s 29 years since his ill-starred and incomplete season as a code-switching driver for McLaren in 1993, and while much in the world of grand prix racing has made giant leaps in that time, at its heart F1 is still the ‘Piranha Club’. As Andretti’s contemporary and fellow IndyCar legend Al Unser Jr said to me last year, “I watch the F1 races today, I’m enthralled by it, I love the technology of the cars. But I know the politics now and it just turns me off.” Michael, however, is a different animal. He’s ready and willing to dive headlong back in.

Michael Andretti with helmet on during 1993 F1 season with McLaren

1993 stint with McLaren ended abruptly, but Andretti was winning again soon afterwards

Paul-Henri Cahier/Getty Images

But even in the era of budget caps and expanding revenues, Andretti Global will face a mountain. Just look at Gene Haas (who perhaps really should consider selling his team to Michael, given what he’s currently going through): his business model was sound when he came in, stirring controversy by adopting a pragmatic ‘piggy-back’ approach with significant support from Ferrari. Yet here he is, seven years in with Guenther Steiner, propping up the grid with no obvious route back to the midfield – especially now. Why should it be any different for Andretti, even if his funding is sufficiently voluminous and water-tight?

But let’s not patronise him (he’s surely had enough of that in recent weeks). Andretti knows the risks – and how it’s ended for so many who have come before him. Particularly in one specific case.

Back in 1994, Michael licked his F1 wounds by returning to IndyCar in a deal with Chip Ganassi – for whom he won first time out at Australia’s Surfers’ Paradise. Sweet redemption, but not only for Andretti. He was driving a Reynard that day, in what was the British constructor’s first-ever IndyCar race. Like Michael, Adrian Reynard was still counting the cost of a damaging F1 flirtation and a failed bid to launch his own team.

From the archive

In the autumn of 1990, a clutch of experienced designers and engineers left Benetton to spearhead the Reynard F1 project. Disaffected by the caustic John Barnard, who’d rubbed everyone up the wrong way in his attempts to raise the game of an under-performing team, they had faith in Reynard’s conviction. The defectors were led by Rory Byrne and Pat Symonds, no less – architects of so much success that was to come. Just not at Reynard.

Symonds recalls the day all 13 resigned en masse to Flavio Briatore. “Flavio called Rory and I into his office and said ‘are you sure about this?’” says Pat. “We said, yes, we can’t work with this guy [Barnard]. And Flavio said ‘fine, I understand it, you’ve been good guys, we’re not going to part on bad times because who knows, we might be working together one day.’ It was almost like he knew.”

About a year later, Briatore – the so-called ‘playboy’ who wasn’t supposed to know anything about F1 – welcomed back the defectors when Reynard’s plans were scotched on the lack of a competitive engine choice. But it hadn’t been an entirely wasted exercise. The design work carried out by Byrne and Co in a Bicester office effectively became the Benetton B192 in which Michael Schumacher scored his first GP victory. As for Adrian Reynard, he tried again later in the decade as a founder of British American Racing, which begat the Honda works team, which begat Brawn GP – which begat Mercedes-AMG…

Racers are optimists, aren’t they? And when it comes to F1 most, it seems, can’t leave well alone. Who knows how it might work out for Michael Andretti this time? He was knocked back by the unhappy McLaren experience in ’93, and again late last year by Sauber (Alfa Romeo). Perhaps the FIA will make it a hat-trick, if his new entry is rejected. But it would be short-sighted to turn away such a man. You never know what it might lead to.